Bartholomew Jones dreams of an all-Black coffee supply chain, stretching 8,000 miles from Ethiopia to Memphis, Tennessee.
It’s been more than a decade since Jones first fell head over heels for coffee, learning to love pourovers in a series of cafes while studying history at college in Chicago. But the 31-year-old native of Memphis’ “Blackhaven” neighborhood admits that, while the coffee was great, the vibes were a miss. Again and again, he found himself feeling like a foreigner when he stood in gentrified-feeling cafes, with few (if any) Black faces in sight. “It was just super white,” he says with a shrug. “It’s not like anybody was mean to me. It just made me think, ‘How could I make this my way?’”
He found inspiration, and an opportunity, when he returned to Memphis and started experimenting with ways to spread his love of Black culture, hip hop and lovingly roasted small-batch coffee. Jones still smiles when he recalls a gathering to discuss Kendrick Lamar’s seminal 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly, where he brewed up cups of Ethiopian coffee to help spur debates over Lamar’s bars.
“One of my homies was like, ‘You said you drink your coffee black, bro. Why does this have blueberries in it? You put something in here.’ And I was like, ‘Nah, coffee is a fruit. It’s going to have some wild flavors.’ It was this a-ha moment to me where I saw that if you create an aesthetic that affirms Black culture, then it creates a space for Black people to reconnect with this seed of Africa,” Jones says. “Something authentic and unclouded by negative cultural connotations around coffee culture.”
The idea that modern coffee shops are symbols of whiteness, appropriation and gentrification isn’t just a well-worn stereotype, but a real issue that has spurred dialogue and criticism in the industry. Coffee is disproportionately a product of the so-called “Global South,” and the modern business is built upon a massive history of white colonization and exploitation of indigenous workers. That ethical disaster persists today, with major coffee exporters like Nestlé continuing to use forced labor and shady pricing to turn a profit.
Amid that reality, Jones dreamed of a kind of coffee that would uplift Blackness. He trained as a barista and started hosting “Coffee Cyphers,” inviting newbies to try and discuss African coffee while listening to rap on vinyl thump in the background. In 2019, he planned for the launch of his lifestyle brand, cxffeeblack, and brainstormed a specialty Ethiopian roast to drop as the first product. To execute that plan, Jones teamed up with Memphis local Kenny Baker, who has a reputation for excellent roasting skills and thoughtful collaboration with diverse creators and farmers.
Together, they dropped “Guji Mane,” a naturally processed coffee grown and harvested by the Guji Oromo people in Ethiopia. Jones was officially the plug, but he didn’t know whether his community would buy in. Lo and behold, they did: Jones estimates that 90 percent of the sales in the first 10 days of Guji Mane’s release came from the Black community. “I thought it would be a one-off thing. But when it sold out, I had people calling about my next drop. And I thought, ‘Wow, this could be important,’” Jones says.
The onset of the pandemic proved stressful in many ways: Plans to start a performing arts program in Memphis fell apart, and Jones had a newborn to care for. He acknowledges how his wife, Renata Henderson, took a job on short notice to help support the family. Then the murder of George Floyd came, sending shockwaves through the community around him. It was an introspective time for Jones, who became charged with inspiration after seeing posts online repeating the phrase “love Black people like you love our culture.”
From it, a kind of slogan for cxffeeblack emerged: “Love Black people like you love Black cxffee,” again referencing the “X” used by Black luminaries (like Malcolm X) as a symbolic rejection of white oppression and ownership. Jones printed it on a handful of T-shirts and, as with Guji Mane, sold out in short notice.
It was a moment of true Black cultural congruence — a phrase Jones loves to use to describe the intersection of creativity, identity and expression — and it propelled more projects. In late 2020, he launched the Anti-Gentrification Coffee Club, located on the border of north Memphis and the rapidly gentrifying Midtown area, where he holds court at the pourover bar, greeting regulars with shoutouts and hugs.
Then Jones surprised himself by crowd-funding enough money to take the cxffeeblack crew to Ethiopia last summer. It was a formative trip for Jones, who had never visited Africa before. He marveled at the ritual of coffee-making in Oromian villages, and the fact that he felt at home in a land that was supposed to be foreign. “We went to the home of the main farmer who grows the coffee for Guji Mane, and the first meal we ate was hot-water cornbread and greens, which is what my grandmother used to make for us in the country,” Jones says, smiling wide. “It opened my eyes, connected the dots.”
Everything he saw justified the dream of the all-Black supply chain — including the importance of women, who have historically been the chief roasters and brewers in the Ethiopian tradition. It’s part of the reason he urged Henderson, his wife, to learn coffee with master artisans around the country and become the head roaster for cxffeeblack. Together, their labor speaks to a dream of what the coffee industry could be if it radically addressed the sins of the past.
“I couldn’t believe it when I heard these farmers tell me I’m the first Black American to visit the coffee farm, let alone one who runs a coffee company and wants to buy from them. They told me to tell more African Americans to visit,” Jones says. “So I feel like a part of our job is to be a bridge. This little red berry is something that allows us to taste the motherland, and reconnect our body to the fruit of where we were born.”